Berlusconi, courts play catch-up

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Berlusconi, courts play catch-up

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Silvio Berlusconi has always defied detractors who said he would end up in prison, and banned from politics. Italy’s richest mover and shaker was never wracked with self-doubt.

In one typical national address he said: “Dear friends, as you may all know, storms don’t scare me. In 17 years I’ve seen a great deal. They have tried every way they can to remove me from politics and from history.”

Berlusconi has been pursued by state prosecutors ever since he first came to power in 1994. Five accusations brought three convictions, and sentences ordering he serve more than six years in prison. But he never did, as in each case the legally prescribed time in which those cases had to be wrapped up had expired.

Today, three cases are still in progress. Mediaset, the one involving Italy’s biggest commercial broadcaster, which Berlusconi set up in 1978 and which is now owned by his family, concerns the alleged sale to the company (by his other company Fininvest) of television and cinema rights at inflated prices.

The operation made it possible to avoid paying millions of euros in taxes. Although he was acquitted at an earlier stage, for want of proof, last year he was convicted of tax fraud and sentenced to four years’ imprisonment – with a five-year ban from running for public office. The Appeal Court in Milan confirmed that this year in May. But the statute of limitations remains a factor.

He probably won’t serve a one-year jail term handed him in the Unipol case, for conspiring to reveal classified police information to a newspaper owned by his family. Again, the lengthy appeals process must run its course, and it’s not likely that the judges will have completed their work by this September’s deadline for the statute of limitations.

On top of this, when a person older than 75 is convicted, and the sentence is less than two years, it is generally not served.

However, there does seem to be a problem for the former prime minister in the Rubygate case. This concerns the accusation that he paid for sex with a minor and also that he misused his power to have the girl released from custody after she was arrested for stealing. In this case, the statute of limitations has until 2020 to run.

The Rubygate affair more than any of the others holds a potential to keep Berlusconi out of politics for good, after 20 years of playing cat and mouse with state prosecutors.